How to Keep Bad Habits From Ruling Your Life


When is the last time you exercised? How much television have you watched this week? What time did you wake up this morning? And how many times have you checked your e-mail today? The answers to these questions depend on your habits.

I’ve done a lot of work changing habits within myself. With a little effort and a lot of patience I’ve conditioned myself to exercise, eat healthy, read more, write daily and minimize wastes of time. I was disorganized, unmotivated and ruled by bad habits, but through using the methods I’ll describe, I’ve managed to free myself.

How to Engineer Your Habits

Engineering your habits isn’t that difficult. I’ve written in great lengths about how to change a habit, both in my original Habitual Mastery series, and more fully in How to Change a Habit. Despite overwhelming feedback, I still see people suffering from the same mistakes.

More than tools, I think having the right viewpoint is critical. If you’re expecting quick fixes or magic tricks, you need to look elsewhere. Similarly if you think sheer force is going to change automatic behaviors, you must be confused. Here are some suggestions when engineering your life:

  1. One Habit at a Time – I can’t stress this enough. Every once in awhile I’ll get an e-mail from someone who wants to change all their habits immediately. Cultivating good habits is like growing crops. You can’t expect them to sprout instantly just because you water them constantly.
  2. One Month Per Habit – It takes a month to solidify a habit. It can take a year to make that habit completely formed. At one habit per month, it may seem like a painfully slow process. But remember, in only a year you can tackle 6-12 habits. That means you could go from a lazy slacker to:
    • Exercising daily
    • Eating healthy
    • Following GTD
    • Waking up earlier
    • Limiting your television usage
    • Using efficient e-mail practices
    • Begin reading a book per week
    • Improving your study/work habits
    • Build a relaxation/stress management ritual
    • Maintaining a journal
    • Improving your organizing skills
    • Practice a new skill or language

    All in one year! This assumes perfect consistency, for your first year I’d probably say a good goal would be 4-5 major habits. But even at that rate you are accomplishing what some people never do in their entire lives. Be patient, the process is fast, don’t feel compelled to go faster.

  3. Engineer by Trial and Error – You are going to screw up. You’re going to go twenty days and break your commitment. You’ll forget about your habit a week in. You’ll forget about scheduling conflicts that distort your plans. Don’t feel bad. Habit engineering is complex, and you need to keep tweaking your approach until you get it right. It took me four tries before I started exercising consistently, now I love it.
  4. Be Consistent – Running Monday, yoga Tuesday, skipping Wednesday and hitting the gym Thursday may sound like fun. But it’s hard to turn a jumbled routine into a habit. Following the same pattern, at least initially, will increase your chances it will stick.
  5. Balance your Feedback – Leo of ZenHabits, brings up an excellent point in this article on habits. If you have more negative feedback than positive feedback, your habit won’t last. Even if you condition it well, it will slowly crumble away. Tip the scales in your favor so your efforts won’t be wasted. Check out the full article for more ideas.
  6. You’re Probably Wrong – Don’t assume habits are strictly good or bad. This bias will make it harder to view your results objectively. I’ve tried following habits others said were best, only to find they didn’t fit my life. Changing habits is a process of discovery.
  7. Not All Problems are Habits – Once you get the ball rolling and start engineering your life, you may want to solve every problem with a new habit. Habits run in the background, and while they can greatly enhance life, they aren’t a complete solution. At the same time, don’t discount habit changing just because it can’t fix every problem.
  8. Get Trigger Happy – Forming a trigger is a good way to make a habit consistent. A trigger is simply a specific, highly ordered routine you do before your habit starts. You can use a trigger such as jumping out of bed when your alarm sounds, or snapping your fingers to keep from biting your nails.
  9. Keep Commitments Precise – Vague commitments, vague results. Keep any promises to yourself perfectly clear. Don’t promise to “exercise more.” Promise to exercise once a day for at least thirty minutes and then list what you qualify as exercising.
  10. Keep Promises Simple – Simple commitments will stick better than complex ones. By following only one or two rules instead of a dozen, you will have more flexibility later.
  11. Replace Lost Needs – All of your habits are pieces of the larger puzzle. If you remove or change one, it may result in a distorted picture across other pieces. Removing television may stifle your need for social interaction, entertainment or relaxation. It’s important to replace lost needs with new sources so your habits won’t crumble away.
  12. Buy the Guide – Okay, time for a shameless plug. Honestly, I could talk about this subject all day, but if you are seriously interested in changing your habits consider getting my guide. How to Change a Habit is inexpensive and comes in an easy to read format to give you tons of ideas to get started.